The most written about Shakespearean tragedy


Hamlet is the great Shakespearean tragedy most frequently mentioned in books. Check the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequency of any word or short sentence found in print since the year 1800. And you will find Hamlet mentioned more often than the other great Shakespearean tragedies.

 I thought Macbeth comes close. But, no, Hamlet is more frequently mentioned by far. Macbeth is a distant runner-up followed by Othello. King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, the other two great Shakespearean tragedies, are mentioned less frequently than Romeo and Juliet.

Predictably, Shakespeare is on Twitter today, it being April 23, believed to be his birthday and also the day he died.

Shakespeare is losing ground, though. The tragedies are cited and quoted less often than before. The late 1940s and early ’50s were the golden age of Shakespeare when references to the tragedies peaked in books. That was the era of scholars like AL Rowse and Dover Wilson and actors like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

One reason the Shakespearean tragedies are mentioned less often in books now may be the growing diversity of the publishing industry. There are more books on other subjects that have little or no reason to cite Shakespeare. The Google Books Ngram Viewer shows fewer references to Shakespeare himself today than in the early 1900s and the 1950s. Those were the years when he was cited most often. AC Bradley’s seminal Shakespearean Tragedy was published in 1904.

Words of Shakespeare

Shakespeare may be losing ground, but it is like the depletion of the rainforests. Just as we cannot imagine a world without rainforests, English won’t be English without Shakespeare. His words have become part of our everyday language. Quotations from his plays and poems pop up everywhere, from books to newspaper articles. These lines from Hamlet, for example, have become ubiquitous:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question”.(Act III, Scene I).

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…”(Act I, Scene III).

“…to thine own self be true”. (Act I, Scene III).

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”. (Act II, Scene II).

“That it should come to this!”. (Act I, Scene II).

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. (Act II, Scene II).

“What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! “.(Act II, Scene II).

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. – (Act III, Scene II).

“In my mind’s eye”. (Act I, Scene II).

“Brevity is the soul of wit”. – (Act II, Scene II).

“I will speak daggers to her, but use none”. – (Act III, Scene II).

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions”. (Act IV, Scene V)

The 1989 second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary had 33,300 quotations from Shakespeare. The viral nature of the World Wide Web means these quotations have been repeated many times over online. A Google search for Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy turned up 23,300,000 results in 40 seconds.

Many of the words we use were first found in Shakespeare. Here are some of the words earliest encountered in Shakespeare by the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary. You will find these and more Bard words on enotes. Also check the website Shakespeare’s Words by David and Ben Crystal.

Words first found in Shakespeare?  
abstemiousacademe  accessible
accommodationaddiction (Shakespeare meant “tendency”)  admirable
aerial (Shakespeare meant “of the air”)airless  amazement
arch-villainassassination  auspicious
barefacedbaseless  bedazzle
belongingsbirthplace  blood-stained
blustererbold-faced  braggartism
bubblebump (as a noun)  candle holder
cater (as in “to bring food”)cat-like  characterless
cheap (in pejorative sense of “vulgar”)chimney-top  churchlike
circumstantialclutch  cold-blooded
cold-heartedcolourful  compact (as noun “agreement”)
to complyto compromise (Shakespeare meant “to agree”)  consanguineous
(related by bloood)
control (noun)countless  courtship
criticalcruel-hearted  to cudgel
Dalmatianto dapple  dauntless
dawn (as a noun)day’s work  death’s head
defeat (as a noun)depositary (as “trustee”)  dewdrop
dexterously (Shakespeare spelt it “dexteriously”)disgraceful  to dishearten
to dislocatedistasteful (meant “to show disgust”  distrustful
dog-wearydomineering  downstairs
drollerydroplet  duteous
East Indiesto educate  to elbow
embrace (as a noun)employer  employment
enfranchisementengagement  to enmesh
enraptto enthrone  epileptic
equivocaleventful  excitement (Shakespeare meant “incitement”)
expedienceexpertness  exposure
eyeballeyedrop (Shakespeare meant a “tear”)  eyewink
face (Shakespeare meant “dial of a clock”)fair-faced  fairyland
fangedfarmhouse  far-off
fashionablefashionmonger  fathomless (Shakespeare meant “too huge to be encircled by one’s arms”)
fat-wittedfeatureless (Shakespeare meant “ugly”)  fiendlike
fitfulfixture (Shakespeare meant “fixing” or setting firmly in place”)  fleer (as a noun, “sneer”)
flowery (“full of florid expressions”)fly-bitten  footfall 
foppishforegone  fortune-teller
foul-mouthedFranciscan  freezing (as an adjective)
fetfulfrugal  full-grown
full-hearted futurity  gallantry (Shakespeare meant “gallant people’
garden housegenerous (Shakespeare meant “gentle”, “noble”  gentlefolk
glow (as a noun)go-between  grass plot
green-eyedgrey-eyed  grief-shot (as “sorrow-stricken”)
grime (as a noun)to grovel  gust (as a “wind blast”)
half-bloodedheartsore  hell-born
to hingehint (as a noun)  hobnail (as a noun)
homely (in the sense of “ugly”)honey-tongued  hostile
hot-bloodedhowl (as a noun)  hunchbacked
idle-headedill-tempered  ill-used
impartialimport (the noun “importance” or “significance”)  inaudible
inauspiciousincarnadine  indirection
indistinguishableinducement  informal (meant “unformed” or “irresolute”)
to inlayinvestment (Shakespeare meant “a piece of   invitation
invulnerablejaded (Shakespeare seems to have meant “contemptible:)  lacklustre
ladybirdlament  laughable
leakyleapfrog  lonely (Shakespeare meant “lone”)
long-leggedlove letter  lustrous
madcap (as an adjective)madwoman  majestic
malignancy (Shakespeare meant “malign tendency”)manager  marketable
marriage bedmewling (“whining”, “whimpering”)  mimic (the noun)
misgiving (Shakespeare meant “uneasiness”)money’s worth  monumental
moonbeammortifying   motionless
multitudinousmutineer  neglect
newsmongernimble-footed  noiseless
obscene (Shakespeare meant “revolting”)on purpose  outbreak
overblownoverview (as a noun: Shakespeare meant “supervision”)  pageantry
pale-facedpaternal  pedant (Shakespeare was referring to a “schoolmaster”)
pedanticalpendulous (Shakespeare meant “hanging over”)  perusal
piouspriceless  profitless
Prometheanprotester (Shakespeare meant “one who affirms”)  puppy dog
quarrelsomeradiance  reclusive
refractoryreliance  remorseless
reprieve (the noun)retirement  roadway
rogueryrose-cheeked  rumination
ruttishsatisfying (as an adjective)  savage (as “uncivilized”)
scuffleseamy  self-abuse (Shakespeare meant “self-deception”)
shipwreckedshooting star  shudder (the noun)
silk stockingsoft-hearted  spectacled
sportivestealthy  still-born
successfulsuffocating (the adjective)  tardiness
time-honouredtraditional  tranquil
transcendencetrippingly  unaccommodated
unappeasedunchanging  unclaimed
uncomfortable (in the sense “disquieting”)unearthly  uneducated
unfrequentedungoverned  ungrown
unhelpfulunhidden  unlicensed
unmitigatedunmusical  unpolluted
unpremediatedunpublished (Shakespeare meant “undisclosed”)  unquestionable
unquestionedunreal  unrivalled
unscarredunscratched  unsolicited
unsolicitedunswayed  untutored
unvarnishedunwillingness  upstairs
usefuluseless  valueless
varied (as an adjective)vulnerable  watchdog
water dropwell-behaved  well-educated
well-readyelping (as an adjective)   

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